The Beginners Guide to Birdwatching


Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Birdwatching, or birding, as it has become more commonly known is one of the world’s fastest growing hobbies. When you mention birding to many people, the first image that comes to mind is an elderly person in neutral colours, a floppy hat with a pair of binoculars around their neck. What's interesting is the diversity of people that have taken up birding, not only is it growing in numbers, but it is also attracting many people that are under 30.


So, what's the thrill of birding? What attracts people to the hobby could be any one of a great many reasons. The thing that makes birds amazing is that they are all around us, yes you can travel far and wide to add new birds to your list, but you could also sit outside your front door and enjoy the birds that come to your garden. To see the ‘Big 5’ you normally need to travel to a game reserve which costs money, but birds are accessible to anyone, no matter what budget you have.


For some birders, the attraction is the thrill of listing. You see, most birders love bird lists – we have lists of what birds we have seen in the country, the world, our town, our neighbourhood, our garden, and maybe even a list of what bird we have seen while we walk the dog. There are birders that will travel far and wide and spare no expense to add just one more bird to their list!


Whatever style of birding or birdwatching appeals to you, there is just one warning that comes with this hobby…if you try it out, you may just be taken in hook, line and sinker – it only needs one special bird, for it to become a lifelong obsession.


So, if you find yourself tempted, let's take a look at what you need to start birdwatching...


1) Binoculars

A pair of binoculars can cost from a few hundred Rand to pairs that can get quite expensive, like R60 000.00 expensive. You don’t need to go out and buy a pair that will break your bank account to start, all that I suggest is that you get the best pair that you can afford. I started off with a second-hand pair that someone gave me, my next pair cost less than R1000, eventually I've progressed to using a much better pair of 'bins' – but the point is that I started with what I could afford. When choosing your first pair of binoculars, try out different brands and sizes, look at what works best for you.


When you look at binoculars you will see numbers such as 8x30, 10x30, etc. No, this isn't a reminder of your times tables, but a very important indicator of the type of binoculars they are.


The first number tells you the magnification of the binoculars (8, 10 or 12 etc) – this tells you how much bigger what you look at will appear. Some think that because birds are small that they should get a pair that have as much magnification as possible – with most pairs, if you get a pair that are above 10x magnification you will struggle to get a stable image and a wide enough field of view.


The second number gives the width in millimetres of the objective lens – this gives the size of the light-gathering end of the binoculars. The larger the number, the more light that will come into the binoculars. Again, it would seem like the best thing to do is to try and get the biggest possible objective lens available – the problem with this is that the bigger it gets, the heavier the binoculars get to carry around.


So, when choosing a pair of binoculars for birding I suggest a magnification of between 7-10x and an objective lens diameter of between 30-50mm.

2) Bird Field Guide

A Bird Field guide is an essential item that you need order to help you to identify the birds that you will see. We are spoilt for choice in Southern Africa, with a wide range of quality field guides available. If you were to ask birders to suggest the best field guide, this could result in some debate – normally the ‘Roberts’ versus the ‘Sasol’ fanatics are drawn into the discussion. When I started birding, I was given a field guide by a good friend, what I found is that it was difficult to find the birds that I was seeing – much against the advice of many of the birders in my circle of friends, I purchased a ‘Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa’ field guide. This is still the field guide that I would recommend for new birders. It may not have as much details as some of the other guides and tents to be a little outdated in terms of newer bird names and species in the region, but what it does is make it easier for new birders to find the bird that they are seeing. It has a simple six step system that was devised by the late Kenneth Newman that helps you to know what to look for when identifying birds. There is also a simple colour code system that helps you to find the bird in the book by placing it into a group.


There are many other great guides on the market, but the ‘Roberts Field Guide’ is the guide that provides the most detail in the write ups for the different species. For many experienced birders, this is their ‘go-to’ field guide that they will use. The guide does not only have great write ups, but also provides great plates (the pages with the drawings of the bird on them). The illustrations are of the highest quality and for many the species important identification features are pointed out, as well showing the bird in different stages of growth and illustrating the difference between the sexes.


The ‘Sasol Birds of Southern Africa’ has been updated most recently – with the latest 5th edition of the guide coming out in 2020. The Sasol 5 as it commonly known, strikes a fine balance between providing information on the species, while at the same time remaining accessible for less experienced birders. The plates have great artwork, using a different style to the Roberts and the Newman’s field guide. Since this is the newest of the guides on the market, this is the most up to date in terms of names and species in the region, as well as having the most up to date distribution maps.


There are also some other options that may appeal to some people, Ian Sinclair is one of South Africa’s best-known birders, his ‘Complete Photographic Field Guide Birds of Southern Africa’ uses photographs on the plates instead of illustrations. It still provides a write up on the different species that are featured. ‘Faansie’s Bird Book’, by the well-known author and artist Faansie Peacock, is a full field guide for children that uses a simple approach to help identify the birds of the region. It does not provide the details with the illustrations that the other guides provide, but not only children will find this a helpful tool for birding. Many adults have found the book a tremendous help to identify birds.


When it comes to choosing a field guide, I suggest going to a book shop and paging through some of the options on the market. The best field guide for you, is the one that suits your unique needs the best.


Additional Resources:

Check our reviews of all the major Southern African Field guides https://www.thebirdinglife.com/blog/categories/birding-books

3) Get some Apps

Almost all the major field guides on the market also have an accompanying app available that makes many of the features the guide available on your mobile device.


The Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa App probably has the oldest looking interface out of all the apps, but many of the helpful identification helps that the book offers are also available on the app. Instead of having a long list of birds when the app opens, instead the app breaks the species in twelve species groupings (for example Ducks, wading birds and shorebirds etc) – this helps the user to narrow down the options for birds that they are seeing. Many of the simplified identification pointers offered on the plates in the book are also found on the app. The bird calls on the app are also really good quality – I often use this app’s calls on the field still. So, although the app looks a bit outdated at first glance, once one digs a little deeper, this app offers the user a great deal of features.


The Roberts Bird Guide 2 App offers the high-quality plates that are offered on your book on your mobile device, but it also allows the user to see photographs of the species. It also offers good quality calls that are split to allow one to identify the different calls that the species make. One bonus that the app offers is an extended text for each species, that allows one to dig in a lot deeper and learn a lot more about what you may encounter on the field. The Roberts App also offers a handy ‘Birding Site’ feature which gives a write up on many of Southern Africa's best birding locations, some of these are a little out of date, but they are still a great feature to help you plan birding trips. For many experienced birders this is still the ‘go to’ app that they choose.


The Sasol eBirds 5th Edition App was released in 2020 and is the most up-to-date app with bird names and species in the region. When you open the app you will see a list of birds that are divided into bird groupings. The app shows many of the features that the field guide provides – like with the Roberts app, it is like having the field guide on your device. For many of the species there are high quality images and good quality calls. What is great about this app is that the bird calls can be played straight from the opening menu without having to fully open the individual species – this is helpful on the field when you need to compare the calls of different species.


The BirdPro South Africa app is probably the best looking of all the apps available on the local market. The app won the ‘Most Innovative App’ category for the MTN app of the year awards. Unlike the other apps, it is not linked to a book and was simply developed as an app. It is visually appealing when one opens it – this app however does not use illustrations; it only has photographs of the species. The developers have used photographs of the highest quality – showing various stages of the birds’ development as well as differences between the sexes. The app however only features South African birds and does not cater for birds in the rest of Southern Africa. The app has high quality calls – with a wide range of difference calls offered for many of the species. There is also a ‘Smart Search’ feature to help identify tricky species – including a section for tricky species (LBJ’s, All-brown Raptors, Nightjars, and Pale Waders). I have tried this feature while on the field and I was impressed with the results.


When it comes to choosing a paid for app for identification it is difficult to single out which is best – as with the field guides, you need to try out some different apps and look at which works best for you. You will probably end up eventually getting more than one app on your device – they all add something different to your birding experience. Some of the apps have free versions that you can try out, which allows you to try it out before spending any money.


There are also great free apps on the market. The Merlin App, which was developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a powerful app that assists users with identifying the birds that they see. You can either follow steps where the app asks you questions or simply upload a photograph of the bird into the app. I have been impressed with the results and think this app will be a huge help to newer birders. Birdlasser world-class is a local app that allows you to record the birds that you see and painlessly keep a life list (a list of the birds that you have seen). This app also plays an important role in conservation by helping data to see bird distribution.


Additional Resources:

See our review of the Merlin App https://www.thebirdinglife.com/post/the-merlin-app-by-the-cornell-lab-free-bird-app-review-part-2

Which Southern African Bird App is Best Value for Money Part 1 https://www.thebirdinglife.com/post/what-is-the-best-bird-app-to-get-part-1

4) Join a Bird Club

Joining a bird club will help you to connect with other people in the birding community, as well as help you to grow as a birder. Bird clubs organise various birding activities – such as bird walks, talks, and even run courses – all of these will help you get around people who are knowledgeable and can help you with your birding journey. While there is a restriction on social gatherings, many of the bird clubs are still having great online events. Bird clubs also allow you through your membership fees and involvement in activities to make a valuable contribution of conservation. (To join a bird club https://www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/join-us/join-a-bird-club/)


I would also suggest becoming a member of Birdlife South Africa who does a great job conserving our countries birds. (To join Birdlife South Africa https://www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/join-us/join-birdlife-south-africa/)


These four tools are an easy way to get started with one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world. We are looking forward to meeting you on the field as you get into this exciting hobby!


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